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  • Mark Smith

Lost and Found in the Allier

On a bike it can happen that you arrive in places you don’t quite know how you found, and from which access back to those you do know appears labyrinthine if not impossible. The asphalt hasn’t actually ended, but it might have. You’re alone and far from the things you hold dear. Your soul begins to run through your fingers. But the surrounding scene is beautiful, so you set aside the woebegone feeling for a moment to consider whether this curiously enchanting spot isn’t the very one you’ve been looking for all your life, the one that will enable you to fulfill your dreams, that will make you happy at last. I came across a spot like this last month during a trip to see friends Bernard and Nancy Matussière, who a few years ago moved from Paris to the Allier département, or county, in central France. One of the country’s 95 such territorial subdivisions, the Allier, named after the local river, is also one of its most remote, least visited and most scarcely inhabited, with a mere 47 people per square kilometer—as compared to 21,000 per km2 in Paris, for example. We’re talking a few farmers and a lot of green hills, cows and the occasional stone village.

Bernard is an old hand on the bike, and though I hadn’t seen him for a few years I knew he was in fine fettle despite the advancing years. I’d been watching his performances on Strava, the exercise phone application. The Allier had apparently done him good. Now in his late sixties, Bernard was turning in average speeds respectable for a 30-year-old—many of them over 70km and more. The weatherman warned of dire circumstances for our selected day on wheels, but when the morning appeared it did so entirely without the predicted gray mantle, proposing instead clear skies and no wind. A few kilometers beyond Bernard’s verdant vale, at a silent crossroads we teamed up with Lucien and Jean-Jacques, two well-weathered veterans of cycling’s golden age who, met in a different context, one might easily mistake for gentle members of a social club for senior citizens. Here again the powers of dedicated cycling astound, for my three silver-haired cohorts soon proved themselves remarkably strong, surging to and holding a pace the average 30-year-old couldn’t match, charging up hills with little less vigor than a bear with a butt full of buckshot. Jean-Jacques, a retired trampoline coach who rides “entre 500 and 700km par semaine” and who flatly describes himself as a high-level athlete, was particularly powerful, leading the group up every rise with smooth pedal strokes and a meditative countenance. Maybe even more impressive was Lucien or, as Jean-Jacques affectionately called him, “Lulu.” A mason in the Allier his whole life, Lucien, 76 years old, had fractured his hip in a bike crash a few months earlier and had mounted the bike only a handful of times since the end of his convalescence. He’d made damned good use of his outings, clearly, holding our wheels unflinchingly, fading only on the steepest climbs. On we rolled, through prim silent towns with svelt names like Franchesse, Couleuvre, Bourbon-l’Archambault and Lurcy-Lévis, a slumbering burg best known for its professional 2.6-mile car racetrack, in the fields outside of town. But buried in Lurcy’s very center lies another local treasure—the Lurcy-Lévis vélodrome, which was built in 1897, making it the oldest bike race track in France, and thus a veritable monument to the history of French cycling. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. As I opened the gate and stepped onto the track’s uneven concrete pavement, my heart began beating faster. The vélodrome, home to hundreds of professional races and championships through the decades, was empty. Only a light breeze rustled the leaves in the surrounding trees, but suddenly I also seemed to hear the excited voices of a large crowd pressing in against the track barriers.

Bernard Matussière made an excellent career as a photographer (see link below), earning considerable renown particularly for his artful photos of fine lingerie. Now he had a different assignment. As he took position with my iPhone on the track’s inner ribbon, I turned a serious face toward Jean-Jacques and Lulu. “Now you’re really going to see something,” I told them solemnly. We’d met barely an hour before, so they looked a little stunned, staring back over the fence like they actually believed what I was saying. Then I smiled and got on the bike. At a mere 250 meters in length, the Lurcy-Lévis vélodrome looks like it belongs in an elementary school playground—far too diminutive to be taken seriously by any real cyclist. Surveying its slightly pitched curves and abbreviated home stretch, I felt like Julius Cesar standing over conquered Gaul. Three laps later the tiny track had all but conquered me. I still haven’t figured out why riding on it is so much harder than riding on the road. Maybe I was trying too hard to impress Lulu and Jean-Jacques. Or maybe it was Bernard’s fault, since every time I came around he’d fiddle with the iPhone and order me to circle the track “encore une fois!” I guess I’ll never know. One thing I do know is that if you want to get lost on a bike, the Allier is a good place to do it.


If you don't have a personal invitation to stay with friends, try staying in one of the many châteaux in the Allier:

Or rent the whole place for a week (or more):

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